Paula Keogh on the Affirm Press/Varuna Mentorship

Late one night in 2015 I was lying in bed trying to sleep when I thought of Affirm Press. Earlier that day, someone had suggested that I send my manuscript to them. For some reason, I was prompted to get out of bed, open my laptop and google ‘Affirm Press’. Amazingly, I discovered that they were offering a mentorship – and the closing date for applications was midnight that night! I looked at the clock: I had forty-five minutes to put in an application and attach the first three chapters of my manuscript.

Looking back, I’m still astounded at the way things happened. Winning one of the inaugural Affirm Press Mentorships was a breakthrough moment in my writing life. The best part of the mentorship was a focused and liberating week of in-depth mentoring at Varuna with two of Affirm’s wonderful 2015 editorial team, Ruby and Kate.

There were three mentorships given that year so the trio of us apprentice writers stayed for a week with Ruby and Kate at Varuna, the national writer’s house in the beautiful Blue Mountains in NSW. Varuna was the home of the writer Eleanor Dark and it’s been a writers’ retreat since the 1990s. My spacious writing studio looked out onto a beautiful garden of flowering shrubs, deciduous trees and winding paths.

It was an intense and inspiring week. My first meeting with the editors became a three-hour discussion of my manuscript. I’d been working alone for years on my story; to talk about it with editors who had read my work deeply was my idea of heaven. And this meeting was followed up during the week with further discussions of the writing I’d done in response to the initial suggestions.

It wasn’t all work, though. The five of us got together in the evenings for scrumptious food and wine, and of course, lively discussion of our work, our lives and the ways of the world. These conversations tended to go on into the night. There’s nothing better after a days’ writing than delicious food, good wine and inspiring conversation with people who love writing and books.

As a result of the mentoring, I saw my story in a totally new light. I understood better its strengths and its flaws, and I could see where it needed work. Kate and Ruby were astute and committed editors. They probed and asked questions, and it was exciting to work with their insights and suggestions. We talked about the themes, the issues, and the writing and I couldn’t wait to start reworking the manuscript with their suggestions in mind.

Stephen King famously said ‘To write is human; to edit is divine’. The real gift of the mentorship was the opportunity to work closely with experienced and generous editors. This mentoring had a profound impact on my writing. I had known that my manuscript needed work, I just didn’t know where or how to bring it together.

After the week at Varuna, I went home and reworked my manuscript. It needed deep structural changes and for about four months I rethought the writing and played with other ways of telling my story. I found I loved editing: polishing the writing, working with deep structures of the story, but also fine tuning at the level of words and sentences.

Having changed my work in quite substantial ways, I sent it to Affirm Press and I was amazed and thrilled when they accepted it for publication. They offered an advance and a contract and from there on, Affirm was committed to putting a book together. I found I enjoyed the whole process, from the fantastic editing through the dedicated promotion and publication and now a second print run, it was the kind of experience you hope for as an author.

My book, The Green Bell: a memoir of love, madness and poetry, was published in 2017. In March 2018 it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and in April it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

2018-05-22T15:03:48+00:00May 22nd, 2018|